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Land-use controls on nutrient loads in aquifers draining agricultural and mixed-use karstic watersheds

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Agricultural nonpoint source pollution from the upper areas of the Upper Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio River basins accounts for the majority of the excess nitrogen that leads to the Gulf of Mexico’s hypoxic zone. However, agriculture landscapes across the USA, Europe, and China are undergoing major changes related to the proliferation of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that account for a greater proportion of point source contamination. Mitigating long-term nutrient inputs at a large scale (Mississippi River Basin) requires understanding these microscale changes at the small watershed level (less than 100 km2). To assess the control of land-use and subsurface hydrological processes on nutrient fate and transport, temporal patterns in nutrient concentrations in a mixed land-use karstic watershed were analyzed. To assess the control of differential land-use sources on total inorganic nitrogen (TIN) loads within the watershed, 4 months of weekly water sampling was performed at a spring location and at two underground conduit locations. The observed temporal variations in nutrient concentrations are primarily associated with seasonal changes in land-use associated with corn growth. Data show that land-use sources explain much of the temporal variability of TIN at the spring when weighted against the hydrological factor. End-member-mixing analysis of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) shows a progressive increase in the contribution of DOC-enriched sources and a more labile form of carbon toward the harvest time. Overall, during high flow, nonpoint source infiltration from manure-fertilized croplands in the northern branch (NB) dominate DOC loads. Because conduit-dominated karstic aquifers are more susceptible to contamination from direct and fast (< 7 h) subsurface infiltration during late summer rainfall period (July to August), a slight advance in the timing of manure application could substantially reduce nutrient loads to local groundwater. A combined evaluation of subsurface hydrological processes and land-use factors controlling nutrients at the scale of small watersheds is crucial to developing site-specific nutrient management plans and managing the Gulf of Mexico’s hypoxic zone.

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Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.


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We are thankful to Harry Goepel for providing housing in Kentucky during sampling. We acknowledge the Greater Cincinnati Grotto of the National Speleological Society for the use of surveys data from the Grayson-Gunnar Cave. We expand our gratitude to Gary and Synda Heikkinen (and the wonderful dogs) for granting us access to the Grayson-Gunnar Cave property. Special appreciation goes to Bill Walden for the valuable information and emotional support he provided during our stay in Monticello, Kentucky. We acknowledge Dr. Michael E. Perdue for graciously allowing us the use of the instrumentation at the Organic Chemistry Lab (Ball State University) and Shamus Driver for his tremendous help with the analyses. We thank the Delaware County Bureau of Water Quality for their help with the analyses of trace metals.


We want to thank the following organizations for granting funding for this project: the National Speleological Society through the 2015 Ralph Stone Research Grant, the Cave Research Foundation through the 2015 Phillip M. Smith Graduate Research Grant, and the Geological Society of America through the 2015 Student Research Grant.

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Tagne, G.V., Dowling, C. Land-use controls on nutrient loads in aquifers draining agricultural and mixed-use karstic watersheds. Environ Monit Assess 192, 168 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10661-020-8126-4

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  • Contaminant transport
  • Groundwater
  • Nutrient pollution
  • Nonpoint source
  • CAFO
  • Gulf of Mexico